Friday, February 20, 2009

Tool, Hair, and the Mango Flowers

I am in Mexico City, staying with a friend from Wellesley (thanks Jennifer!). Today I walked through the park to go visit Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology. Just like everyone said, it was awesome: good displays, clear signage, and incredible artifacts. I only just scratched the surface of what it has to offer (I get museumhead pretty quick), but I still enjoyed it.

After the geology nerd in me finished geeking out on the obsidian displays, I moseyed through the evolution exhibit. There was this one section that displayed tools, and showed how humans' use of tools evolved over time: they got sharper, smaller, and more precise for the task at hand.

Flashback to the morning: I got a haircut last week. See? Here's me with hair.

Here's me with the haircut.

The hairdresser did a good job, but there have been a couple of stray pieces that have needed a little extra pruning (I guess that's what I get for getting a $3.20 haircut). So this morning, Jennifer, kind friend, said, "When we get back to the apartment, you need to cut that chunk of hair that's hanging down. I even have hair cutting scissors." When we get back to the house, what do I do? I go into the kitchen and use the kitchen scissors. Granted, they are FINE scissors. And I am not one to be choosy about such matters.

But why didn't I just use her hair-cutting scissors? There were absolutely no barriers to my using this tool. I speak her language. We were 20 feet away from each other. She is my friend. She offered the hair-cutting scissors, the tool for the task at hand. And yet I chose to use the kitchen scissors. A step up from the swiss-army-knife-and-fork combo I once used to cut my hair, but still.

Which brings me back to the museum. And the tools. And choices.

The placard above the tools says this:

Societies of hunter-gatherers have always had a broad knowledge of the environment in which they live. Additionally, they have made use of this knowledge of the life cycle of plants and animals to insure their own survival."

The sentence gets me thinking... thoughts that I have mulled over many times before. Namely, why do we choose to do things a certain way? The sentence implies that it's our knowledge base that drives our behavior. I'm not convinced. I know a lot of things that I don't necessarily act on: I don't eat many vegetables, I rarely floss, and I eat mass-produced meat. I know that the planet is in peril, and that shifts in my behavior would directly and indirectly benefit my health and environment (not to mention gum care). There are no barriers to these behavior changes. Yet I am slow to change. Slower, it would seem, than a hunter-gatherer.

A few months ago, I had a bunch of conversations with my mother about her driving habits. She mentioned how she really admired how all three of her children were so into biking and public transportation. There's a bike store in Portland, OR that puts an ad in the paper that says, "Just one day. That's all we ask." [They ask for people to not drive one day a week.] I proposed this to my mother, who decided, yes, she could not drive one day a week. Perhaps on the weekend.

So a few weeks later, we're talking... and she says, "I was so close, Mere. On Sunday, I didn't drive all morning. But then I was late. So I drove. To yoga. A mile away."

It is this story that I mull over in my head over and over again.

I love garbage. I think it's neat to see what we choose to use, and at what point it becomes refuse. But I know, deep down, that it doesn't really matter. I would LOVE it if my choice to purchase a mango flower pounded onto a stick was "better" than sliced mango in a plastic cup, surrounded by a plastic bag, eaten with a plastic fork. Okay, maybe it is better. But it doesn't really matter.

The only things that really matter are how you eat (local? organic? low on the food chain?), how you get around (car? bike? foot? public transportation? private jet?), and the big choices of your home (is it small-ish? is it efficient?). The bonus fourth thing is whether or not you are politically active.*

I have a broad understanding of the environment in which I live (threatened fisheries, eroding soils, unequal access to clean water, and overpopulation come to mind). So does my mother. So do most of my friends. But I cannot confidently say that we use this knowledge to "insure [our] own survival".

As I left the museum, I thought, we are doomed.

*These four things were taken from Umbra, of Grist Magazine.

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